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date: 18 September 2020

(p. 517) International Relations: Introduction

When political scientists renewed their interests in the study of the state and institutions 25 years ago, international relations (IR) scholars were part of the debates that led to the crystallization of historical institutionalism. In the wake of these debates, however, the IR subfield largely looked to other traditions of institutional analysis to examine the origins and effects of international institutions. By contrast with the comparative and American politics subfields, where historical institutionalism quickly established itself as major tradition of analysis and saw steady growth, the tradition’s inroads in IR are more recent. This part features chapters by contributors to early debates on institutions and the state, by scholars who maintained the sensibilities of the tradition over the years without directly invoking the historical institutionalism label, and by authors who have drawn on historical institutionalism to revisit common understandings of international relations and to chart new areas of empirical analysis. Together, the chapters demonstrate the significant potential that historical institutionalism holds for analytically sharp and empirically nuanced studies of state sovereignty, international orders, security, organization, law, trade, finance, and regulation.

(p. 518) In the opening chapter, Stephen D. Krasner explores the sources for the enduring nature of diverse forms of state sovereignty. Krasner notes that at no point have international systems been characterized by universal adherence to the same principles, rules, or norms of political organization, and he argues that historical institutionalism is particularly well placed to help researchers account for the persistence on diverse forms of sovereignty. Pointing to historically contingent episodes in producing instances where states have bargained away parts of their sovereignty, Krasner concludes that the modern system of state sovereignty will remain stable and only be supplanted if political entities with limited material capabilities come to possess technologies that threaten mass-scale deaths.

G. John Ikenberry participated in early debates about the state and alternative understandings of institutions, and uses his chapter to discuss historical institutionalism’s contributions to study of the origins, resilience, and evolution of international orders. Ikenberry notes that international orders often prevail over long periods of time despite big shifts in distributions of state power, because institutions alter states’ calculations to make them favor extant designs over radical overhauls. For this reason, Ikenberry is skeptical that shifts in global distributions of power in the early twenty-first century will upend the liberal international order that has prevailed since 1945, despite the waxing and waning of US power.

It is has been said that nowhere does state power matter more and nowhere are institutions less important than in the domain of international security. Etel Solingen and Wilfred Wan powerfully rebut such statements, documenting the central role of institutions in shaping both the trajectory of states’ security strategies and in maintaining states’ commitments to limit the proliferation of nuclear technology. Their account contrasts sharply with those that see international institutions as temporary arrangements with little effect on state behavior, and illustrates that states’ preferences and strategies are informed and frequently transformed by international institutions. If Solingen and Wan are correct about the causal impact of institutions in shaping international security practices over time, then there are strong reasons to give historical institutionalism a more central position in IR debates about the origin and evolution of international institutions.

Noting that IR has only recently come to more seriously grapple with the contributions of historical institutionalism, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore encourage researchers to pay greater attention in the future to the role played by the global institutional context in shaping international affairs. Because formal international rules may be relatively weak in comparison with national ones, they argue that careful attention to how international norms and ideas shape international politics may hold the keys to why state behavior and policy choices take their particular forms. Farrell and Finnemore therefore encourage historical institutionalists to establish strong bridges to sociological institutionalism, which they see as a means to more fully incorporating (p. 519) the role that global social contexts, ideas, and norms play in shaping patterns of state behavior.

Changes in international normative contexts may be a product of the actions of international courts, which have grown in number over time and often impact the behavior of states, governments, and individuals. Detailing three critical junctures in the evolution of international courts, Karen J. Alter explores how incremental changes to court practices have gradually transformed states’ relationships to courts in ways that have made them less likely to reject the legitimacy of courts and more likely to obey their jurisprudence. Alter makes the case that historical institutionalism holds particular promise for the grounded empirical research enterprise approach it brings to the study of international courts, as well as for its value in identifying the mechanisms that lead international institutions to shape and at times gradually transform state behavior over time.

An analytical toolbox centered on temporal concepts and research in the primary archive are hallmarks of historical institutionalism that have helped scholars provide authoritative accounts of major institutional innovations and revisit common interpretations of history. Both the chapter by Judith Goldstein and Robert Gulotty on the origins of greater trade liberalization and that by Eric Helleiner on the Bretton Woods conference illustrate the big rewards that IR stands to gain from embracing a historical institutionalist approach. Goldstein and Gulotty’s analysis of how constitutional constraints and presidential strategy interacted with positive feedback effects and historical legacies to shape US and international trade liberalization help them explain why liberalization has ebbed and flowed over time without any substantial reversal since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, Helleiner’s primary research revisits conventional understandings of the modern international economic system’s origins by documenting how institutional arrangements proposed by New Deal supporters after the Great Depression to structure bilateral lending practices between the US and Latin America became blueprints for structuring global monetary and financial systems after the Bretton Woods conference.

The analytical toolbox of historical institutionalism has never been confined to the study of events in the distant past, but has long demonstrated its value for explaining contemporary developments. In a chapter that explores core concepts in historical institutionalism, such as temporal sequencing, practices of institutional layering, and positive feedback effects, Abraham L. Newman details the great promise historical institutionalism holds for empirical research on global market regulation in the twenty-first century. Central to Newman’s account are informal international institutions, including networks of regulators that shape the structure of global markets in areas as diverse as finance and pharmaceuticals by influencing the sequence of reform within major economies, the prospects for radical and incremental reform, and the likelihood that groups with stakes in old rules will support rule changes. (p. 520)